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Nan Guzetta

Exhibit showcases the brilliance of the Serbian American inventor

By Kevin Redding

Asked in 1927 about not getting the proper recognition for inventing radio among other uncredited scientific achievements, Nikola Tesla said, “Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments … the present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.”

Ninety years later, not only is the truth out about the greatness of the Serbian American inventor — whose long list of contributions to modern science includes the alternating current motor, the electric motor, wireless communication, X-rays, the remote control, and, yes, radio — his work is utilized everywhere we go.

And now it is celebrated every day in Stony Brook Village for the rest of the summer. Residents far and wide are invited to explore the radical genius of Tesla in a new exhibit at Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center titled Nikola Tesla: Past, Present, Future. Visitors can immerse themselves in the life and inventions of the man who electrified history, powered the present and continues to shape the future.

On view through Sept. 4, the exhibit was designed by board members within the nonprofit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, where Tesla’s last remaining laboratory stands and features a litany of displays such as an operating replica of the famous Tesla coil, augmented reality technology and a signed Tesla Roadster off the Tesla Motors assembly line.

Buzzing sounds of electricity, dramatic music and compelling narration of Tesla’s life pervade throughout the large room, where kids, teens, adults and seniors have enjoyed since July 8 interactive kiosks, screens showing in-depth documentaries, biographical banners, models and more.

“There’s a real desire on the public’s part to learn more about him because he’s an unsung American and international scientific hero,” said David Madigan, the Tesla Science Center board member who was tasked with bringing the exhibit to life. “He’s also the name that most people don’t know, and yet he’s one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. It’s very important that the public supports it.”

Back in March, Ward Melville Heritage Organization President Gloria Rocchio approached Madigan and other members of the Tesla board and asked them to take up the exhibit space for the summer as a way to give the nonprofit visibility and promote their cause. (The Tesla Science Center is in the process of raising funds to open its doors to the public next year.)

Board Director Marc Alessi and Madigan took on the challenge, seeing the exhibit as a mini version of what will ultimately be their expansive Visitor’s Center, which will serve as the site’s main focus until the museum is in operation — the group needs a minimum amount of $20 million to open it.

“We made a decision as an organization that this would force us to put together an exhibit and start collecting the necessary materials; we’re going to need to put items into our building when we open next year so why not get started now?” Alessi said during a recent tour. “I think people are getting a bit of a taste of what this will be and this is just one pillar of what the Tesla Science Center will eventually be.”

But filling the exhibit room was no easy feat, as the two would learn. “It was a huge and heavy lift for us because I wasn’t aware of what we might have on hand in storage,” Alessi said. “I knew we had some donations, but did we really have enough material for an exhibit this size? At the time, we didn’t.”

Madigan quickly got on the horn with everyone he knew would want to contribute to a Tesla-centric space, which, luckily for him, ended up being a lot of impassioned people. In two months, the exhibit bursted with life.

Banners were brought in from the Tesla Science Foundation in Philadelphia and Belgrade, Serbia, and a Rocky Point artisan named Rob Arnold built a replica of Tesla’s teleautomaton — the first ever remote-controlled boat that Tesla premiered at Madison Square Garden’s Electrical Exhibition in 1898. Local filmmaker Joseph Sikorski, who made the documentaries “Fragments from Olympus: The Vision of Nikola Tesla” and “Tower to the People” about the history and preservation of Wardenclyffe, set up the exhibit’s kiosks and even donated his model of Tesla’s laboratory used in many of his films.

Nan Guzzetta of Antique Costumes & Prop Rental in Port Jefferson submitted Tesla-period wardrobe to be displayed; neon sculptor Clayton Orehek created a spectacular portrait of Tesla as well as a coil-inspired design of the inventor’s signature; and Richard Matthias of Hot Springs, Arkansas, built and donated a Jacob’s ladder display and the replica of the Tesla coil — which visitors are able to charge with the help of neon glass tubes.

Next to the Tesla Roadster in the corner of the room sits a 3D hands-on exhibit brought in by the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City that allows people to manipulate the magnetic field on which the Tesla induction motor is based.

“We found it all very inspiring,” Madigan said of the support. “Everywhere we go with this, it’s not us, it’s Nikola Tesla that is fascinating to people. We wanted to put together an illustrative exhibit that would help educate the public as to exactly who this man was and how he contributed to society, and continues to. You can’t talk about Tesla in the past without talking about the future.”

Madigan demonstrated in the exhibit what’s called the Nikola Tesla augmented reality app, designed by Brian Yetzer of Philadelphia, that superimposes a 3D animation of a Tesla-related image over something in the room with a quick scan of a phone. Upon scanning over a banner, a film of Tesla played on the phone screen.

Bill Pagels and Sue Ann Wilkinson of Salt Lake City, Utah, made sure to go to the exhibit during a recent vacation to the area. Both of them waved neon glass tubes and watched in amazement as the Tesla coil erupted with electricity. “We know [Tesla’s] a towering giant,” Pagels said. “But we didn’t know the extent to which his inventions resulted in something we would be carrying around in our pockets, or the range of technology he invented. It’s fascinating to understand the depth of his impact on humanity and, frankly, that he was such a humanitarian. It’s really quite amazing.”

Looking around the active room, Alessi said, “For us, it’s remarkable that this was pulled together the way it was over the course of a few months and we’re grateful Ward Melville gave us this opportunity. Having them help us with this first exhibit is remarkable and we’re seeing the benefit, we’re seeing local profile raised as a result.”

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